Dexter Holland
Rock

The Offspring's Dexter Holland on the Rock Stalwarts' Return — And Why It's Ready to 'Let the Bad Times Roll'

The vocalist, songwriter and molecular biology PhD reflects on the pop-punk trailblazers' career and their first new album in almost a decade.

Since its debut on the Billboard charts in 1994, The Offspring has become one of that decades most lasting rock acts. Over the course of nearly three decades, the pop-punk pioneers and road warriors not only finished out a seven-album major label contract but kept making music far beyond it, retaining a radio presence along with their senses of sanity and humor.

Led by iron-lunged vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Dexter Holland, The Offspring broke through on alternative radio and MTV with “Come Out and Play,” kicking off a mid-to-late nineties streak of success including albums Smash, Ixnay on the Hombre and Americana, which together account for a good chunk of the band’s 17.1 million career album sales, per MRC Data. Much of that MTV generation may remember them best for the still-hilarious “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy),” proof of the degree to which The Offspring helped usher punk into the mainstream. 

With 17 top 10s on alternative radio and 15 on mainstream rock, the band isn’t slowing down yet: its first album on Concord Records, Let the Bad Times Roll, is out today (Apr. 16), and already has two top tens on the latter chart, including the title track, a rallying cry reminder of Trump-era fearmongering that would be shiver-inducing if it weren’t, like so many of the band’s tunes, so darn catchy. 

Holland insists it’s not a political album, and it’s true that, like most Offspring records, Let the Bad Times Roll has a few unexpected twists, like a rock instrumental version of composer Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and a piano ballad cover of beloved Ixnay track Gone Away.” In fact, it may be the most classic Offspring album in yearsarriving just in time for a pop-punk revival on the charts, and for an audience ready to rock out in public as soon as possible. 

It's why, as Holland recently told Billboard in a wide-ranging interview, he and the band created the closest thing they’ll ever do to a public service announcement... with a little help from an old hit of theirs. 

You recently posted an update to “Come Out And Play” with the refrain “Gotta Go Get Vaccinated.” It works pretty well! 

 I think that’s the closest we’ve ever come to a political statement. I never want to feel like we’re telling people what to do, cause that feels preachyI want to throw my observations out there and let you act on it.  But I mean, I do have some background in molecular biology, so it seemed like a nice public service announcement to put out. I was surprised by how divided the [responses have been], though maybe I shouldn’t be. It’s telling of our time that even this is controversial.  

It’s interesting to see an album called Let the Bad Times Roll at a moment when we’re all kind of hoping that things are at least starting to get better — though it’s clear, at the same time, that the world is not suddenly in great shape.  

Are we trying to say the bad times are still rolling, or is this some sort of referendum on what’s happened in the past few years? We’re still facing a lot of challenges, and I don’t see it going away any time soon. Fingers crossed, we’re getting over the hump, but man, I think the bad times are still rolling. 

Daveed Benito
The Offspring

The band has always tackled serious subjects, but do you consider it important to engage with politics in your music?  

Every time there’s been a Republican in office, there’s been great punk music. But not so much this time! I hate to be in context with the word “responsible” because it’s so not rock ‘n’ roll – ultimately, I write songs to make [the band] happy – but I feel like if we can offer something that has value in the world, I do want to say that. Not to convince anybody –  at the end of the day, I say what I say because I feel something about it. And by the way, I don’t consider this a political record.  

What I always liked, growing up, about punk bands was that they weren’t afraid to take on heavy subjects.  When we started we were into the Dead Kennedys and Ramones and Social Distortion. I loved that punk bands were talking about real issues – that spoke to me so much more meaningfully. "The Kids Aren’t Alright is like me riding through my old neighborhood thinking, “Oh, that’s the guy who went to jail,” “that’s the guy who died”  that’s why I put it out.  That one in particular, so many people have come up to me and said, I know what you’re talking about.  

A few songs on this album sound so much like classic Offspring, I wouldn’t be surprised if they'd come out 20 years ago — in part because your voice still sounds like it did then. Was that a conscious stylistic choice? 

I'll take that as a compliment. When you get to the point where you do several records, you feel like, now what? We always had an oddball song, but you’re always trying to figure out, how do I sound like us but sound different at the same time? The last couple records, I felt like I wanted to push that boundary. After Smash, I felt like we needed to extend the circle, and do things we hadn’t done before, like putting "Gone Away" on Ixnay.  Over the last couple records, I felt like we needed to do that again, so we tried some things really out of our comfort zone.  Some worked, some maybe were perceived as too far, but I felt like on this record, let’s go back a bit to that thing we liked so much when we started, because it might sound fresh again.  So I guess there was a bit of a conscious effort to return to that kind of traditional Offspring sound. 

It seems like you’ve always had fun with the album format, sprinkling little oddities throughout your records over the years — and you do that on this new one as well.    

There’s so much pressure nowadays to be a singles band, even if you’re a rock band. We actually really gave that some discussion. I think as we were recording, we discovered it just didn’t feel right; we’re a band, bands should put out records. Part of the reason is you can showcase your whole personality – your quirkiness.  We can do something like “In the Hall of the Mountain King” that’s just kind of a goof, taking a classical song and doing it punk rock style. In the context of a record, you can do that and show that’s what the band in totality is all about.  

One of those more unusual tracks is a new version of “Gone Away,” with just you, piano and strings. What was the thinking behind doing that?

It was kind of a fan mandate? A few years ago we started doing it live in this way on the piano.  A rock show can feel like bam bam bam, and we wanted to take a minute in the middle of the set to let everyone breathe.  Sit down for a minute, stop screaming [laughs]. What really got me is when we played it, the lighters went up instantly, it was really connecting. And we’ve gotten so many messages on social media of, where can I get this? That kind of inspired me to just do this version of it. It makes it feel different in a way I think is cool.  It was weird recording it; I’m so used to weird, loud, messy guitars that cover up all your imperfections, and it felt pretty vulnerable, quite frankly. 

Sophie Howarth
Dexter Holland of The Offspring performs during the band's Americana Tour at the Newcastle Entertainment Center on June 19, 1999 in Newcastle, Australia.

There’s a wave of artists selling their catalogs right now, and it seems like you guys were ahead of the curve when, in 2016, Round Hill acquired your Columbia catalog and career publishing rights for $35 million — at the time their biggest acquisition yet. What went into that decision, and is it one you’re still happy with?  

It certainly does seem to be fashionable now, huh? Or happening more often. In our case, we were very fortunate that when we signed to Sony our records were licensed, so we technically owned them and knew they would come back to us after the delivery of our last album. We finished a seven-album deal with Sony – actually finished it! — and were just free agents. So after a few years we thought, what do we do here? At the end of the day, we just decided to sell it. I’m glad we did itand Round Hill was the right partner to go with. And the great thing about being in a band is you can always make new songs.   

The Offspring was also an early adopter of working with the gaming world — most recently, I found your songs in the VR game Synth Riders 

This really started with surf and skate videos. We put out Ignitionand that year all these surf videos came out that wanted to use “Pennywise cause it went well with the footage.  Ignition got into all these surf movies because [the creators] called Epitaph [Offspring’s label at the time]. It makes sense – it's an energetic kind of music.  We’d have this whole new crowd that came out to see us play – these skaters and surferswhereas before it was the mohawks and leather jacket crowd.  After that we got into a video game called Crazy Taxi that people still talk about, a standup arcade game – that was our first thing in gaming. After that it was Guitar Hero, that was huge. And now it’s the stuff you’re talking about, the VR stuff. I totally get it.  How do you reach people who might not hear you? It’s probably the best example now.   

You’re a guy with many interests, and most notably, you have a PhD in molecular biology. Can you explain that work, and how you ended up doing this amid also being in a rock band? 

I mean, sure, I’ll try to make it a quick summary. We were doing the band right out of high school and we didn’t really expect it to go anywhere, so we all had our other plans, and I went to USC and I was pre-med. I actually didn’t get into medical school; I wasn't completely focused in college, I think I was trying secretly to sabotage my college career so I’d make it in the band. But I had the chance to stay at USC and get a master's in molecular biology, which I thought might improve my chances.  So I got the masters, I still didn’t get into medical school, so they told me, “Maybe just finish up and get a doctorate.” Being a grad student is so flexible, I could disappear for a couple days [for the band] and it was fine. 

I was “ABD,” or “all but dissertation,” working on it slowly when the band took off. At that point I realized I couldn’t really juggle both. I took a break, and they were nice enough to give me a leave of absence and never follow up on it! So, 20 years later, I went back and some of the same professors were still there, and I felt like I had a chance to finish it that I might not have in another five years. 

I was always interested in viruses – kind of funny now that we’re in the middle of a viral pandemic — I thought it was fascinating the way they work. So my research was largely computational. Human cells have micro-RNA that was just discovered in the last 15 years, sort of like on-off switches for genes.  The next thing is to determine if they exist in viruses, and it looks like some do and some don’t and with HIV it’s kind of a maybe – so I was investigating that. There are some real parallels with coronavirus, how the molecular interactions work. I’d like [that research]  to continue on a project level; I don’t think I have time for another career, but I think there’s a way to author some papers here and there. Maybe after the punk rock record! 

Do you feel like it’s ultimately helped the longevity of the Offspring that the Offspring has never been your entire life? 

I think so. I mean, people ask what’s the secret of having a long-running band, and I think it’s knowing how to take breaks – just getting away from each other. When you tour, you’re together nonstop, and as much as I love the guys, you need to have your own thing. There’s so much cool stuff out there — I want to do it all.    

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